Chinese artist takes aim at gay ‘conversion therapy’

Trucks with huge banners have made their way through the streets of Shanghai and Nanjing, with more protests to follow. ‘Clinic’ offering therapy to ‘turn straight people gay’ also opens in Shenzhen

Phoebe Zhang  

On a hazy day this week, a convoy of three white trucks is making its way through the streets of Nanjing, in eastern China. They are covered in huge red banners with black lettering that look like billboards from a distance.

“Treating a ‘disease’ that doesn’t exist,” reads one.

“Chinese classification of mental disorders still includes ‘sexual orientation disorder’,” says another.

And the third simply asks: “For 19 years, why?”

They slowly take their message across the Yangtze River, through a vine-covered ancient gateway, and past the New Street district, bustling with shoppers and office workers.

When they reach Renkang Hospital, the trucks stop and 28-year-old Wu Qiong gets out – he has an appointment for “conversion therapy”.

In a consulting room, he tells psychologist Dr Ma Ke that he is afraid to tell his parents he is gay and wants to “turn straight”. The psychologist tells him not to worry. “It can be cured, as long as you have a strong will,” Ma says, before diagnosing Wu with “sexual orientation disorder”.

He offers three treatment plans to “completely change” Wu in 10 to 15 days – through cognitive behaviour therapy, aversion therapy or medication combined with the use of a helmet-like device to improve “brain balance”.

Wu is sceptical, but Ma is quick to reassure the young man that he is an expert in the area.

But Wu is not gay, and he is not really there for treatment. He is an artist from Shenzhen and this is part of an elaborate protest he came up with last year, Wu tells the South China Morning Post.

In China, homosexuality was illegal until 1997 and was removed from the list of mental disorders only in 2001. Social attitudes towards homosexuality remain generally closed, in part due to a traditional Confucian emphasis on marriage and having children, creating barriers that keep most gays in the closet. Although the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community is estimated at 70 million people and vibrant gay scenes do exist in the mainland’s large cities, for many it is a struggle to be accepted. And stories are rife of families forcing their relatives to have so-called conversion therapy.

Raising awareness

Wu got the idea for the protest after meeting up with a friend in May. They had messaged on the social network WeChat for some time but had never actually met in person.

Days before they were due to meet, two women carrying rainbow flags had been stopped from going into a bar in Beijing. The women ended up scuffling with security guards and there was a huge outcry over the incident on social media.

When they met, Wu and his friend, Lin He, a gay policeman, talked about the case and the difficulties he faced every day with family and work. Lin said he kept a journal, written in the style of police reports – and that was when the idea struck. Wu would use three quotes from the journal and turn them into huge banners to be driven around the country on trucks, to raise awareness of the situation facing the LGBT community in China.

It was based on the 2017 film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, in which the protagonist uses billboards to draw attention to her daughter’s unsolved rape and murder.

He spoke to LGBT organisations and activists over the next few months and was given a list of hospitals and clinics that still offered conversion therapy – and that decided the protest destination.

Although homosexuality is no longer considered a crime or a disease in China, the Chinese Classification of Mental Disorders published by the Chinese Society of Psychiatry lists “sexual orientation disorder”. The entry describes how some people might feel anxious about their nature and seek change, giving scope for conversion therapy to be carried out. Across the country, it is still offered in more than 100 clinics and hospitals, where a variety of methods are used to treat “sexual orientation disorder” – from counselling to drugs and, in extreme cases, shock therapy.

Fighting for change

In recent years, there have been many protests, campaigns and even court action taken against conversion therapy. Yanzi, an activist in Guangzhou, had the treatment at Xinyu Piaoxiang counselling centre in Chongqing in 2014 to find out what went on at such clinics. He said he was asked to take off his shoes, lie down and think about men having sex – then, without warning, the therapist used a small metal rod to administer a shock to his arm. “It didn’t hurt much, but it did startle me just as I was getting comfortable,” Yanzi said, adding that he left the centre soon after.

A report by the Beijing LGBT Centre that year said many patients were forced into having conversion therapy by their families, leaving them feeling uncomfortable at best. One man told the centre that after three months of shock treatment and medication, he had become so depressed he had to quit his job.

After his experience, Yanzi sought legal advice and decided to sue the clinic and the search engine Baidu for false advertising. By December 2014, the court had ordered the centre to issue an apology on its website and pay Yanzi 3,500 yuan (US$520) in compensation.

It was the first successful lawsuit against conversion therapy but it was a symbolic victory, and many centres continued to offer the treatment.The following year, a man from Zhumadian, Henan province was shoved into a car and driven to a mental institution by his wife and her relatives after he asked for a divorce. He had started a relationship with a man a couple of years into their marriage. The 38-year-old was kept there for 19 days, force-fed medicine and given injections. He was rescued by activists and in 2016 he approached Yanzi for help with a lawsuit. In July 2017 a court ordered the psychiatric hospital to make a public apology and pay the man 5,000 yuan in compensation.

While the cases were hailed as progress for the LGBT rights movement, many clinics still claim homosexuality can be “cured” – though according to Wu, they are less open about it now.

His rolling protest began in Shanghai last weekend, where the trucks were bright red, with quotes painted on the sides in black. It moved on to Nanjing, and next weekend the trucks will hit Jinan, the Shandong capital, before continuing the protest in Tianjin and then Beijing. Wu said while some doctors he encountered would not say they could “cure” gay people, they had hinted that this was the case. One had told him there were two types of homosexuals – “real” and “fake … shaped by their social environment or childhood trauma”.

“Once a doctor says that, no doubt many parents will force their children to go,” Wu said.

A new therapy

As Wu’s trucks made their way around Nanjing on Monday, another part of the protest was also under way in Shenzhen, more than 1,000km to the south. Wu’s friend, an artist who calls himself Nut Brother, opened an unusual “clinic” offering therapy to “turn straight people gay”.

“There are more than 100 clinics that claim to convert homosexuals, but not a single one that converts heterosexuals,” Nut Brother said. “This should be on offer as well.”

The artist is no stranger to activism. In 2015, with a device like a vacuum cleaner on his back, he walked around Beijing when the pollution was particularly bad. After 100 days of doing this, he sent the dust and dirt he had collected from the air to a kiln and had it turned into a brick.

Last year, in a bid to raise awareness of water contamination, he sent 10,000 bottles of polluted water from a remote village to Beijing and put them on display in a temporary shop he had set up.

The conversion clinic took more preparation. He had to register the company, hire a therapist – who claims to have successfully converted people before – and advertise on social media.

“We’ve been trying to do a ridiculous thing as seriously as possible,” he said.

On Monday, having rented a small flat to use as the clinic, Nut Brother opened for business, hanging a logo on the door with two hands bending the ends of an iron bar. Next to it was a list of clinics across China that still offer conversion therapy.

Among those who turned up for the “therapy” was Shenzhen lawyer Lulu. She said she had been bisexual since middle school, but never told her parents – they had made it clear that it was OK for others to be gay, but not her.

“I’ve come here to become ‘even more gay’ and to try to destigmatise bisexuality,” she said. “Most people say to bisexuals, ‘If you like men too, why not just marry a man and make things easier?’”

The counsellor took a pathological approach, trying to tap into potential childhood trauma or issues with her father. “It made me extremely uncomfortable,” Lulu said afterwards. “Many counsellors don’t take LGBT issues seriously, and don’t have a basic knowledge of gender.”

Returning from the Nanjing protest, Wu made it to his friend’s clinic on the second day. His diagnosis? He had the will to become gay, but his body was not ready to accept it yet.

The clinic and Wu’s billboards have been getting plenty of attention online. By Friday, footage of the Nanjing and Shanghai truck protests had been viewed more than 7 million times on social media, with over 15,000 comments posted. Nut Brother’s conversion therapy, meanwhile, has been searched for hundreds of times, with curious internet users even digging up its registration details and commenting, “It’s actually real”.

And that, said Wu, is what the protest is all about.

“The less you discuss it, the more fearful you become,” the artist said.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Artist creates billboards to protest against gay therapy

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